A long-exposure photograph of the Draconid meteor shower in October 2018. Photo: Smityuk Yuri/TASS/ZUMA Press By Amanda Foreman Jan
Historian Amanda Foreman searches the past for the origins of today’s world. Read previous columns here.
If you wish upon a star this week, you probably won’t get your heart’s desire. But if you’re lucky, you’ll be treated to an outstanding display of the Quadrantids, the annual New Year’s meteor shower that rivals the Perseids in intensity and quality of fireballs. The Quadrantids are exceptionally brief, however: The peak lasts only a few hours on January 2, and a cloudy sky or full moon can ruin the entire show.
Meteor showers happen when the Earth encounters dust and rock sloughed off by a comet as it orbits the sun. The streaks of light we see are produced by this debris burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Human beings have been aware of the phenomenon since ancient times. Some Christian archaeologists have theorized that the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah was inspired by a massive meteor strike near the Dead Sea some 3,700 years ago, which wiped out the Bronze Age city of Tall el-Hammam in modern Jordan.
Aristotle believed that comets and meteors weren’t heavenly bodies but “exhalations” from the Earth that ignited in the sky. As a result, Western astronomers took little interest in them until the rise of modern science. By contrast, the Chinese began recording meteor events as early as 687 B.C. The Mayans were also fascinated by meteor showers: Studies of hieroglyphic records suggest that important occasions, such as royal coronations, were timed to coincide with the Eta Aquarid shower in the spring.
“ Even before telescopes were invented, it wasn’t hard to observe comets, meteors and meteor showers. ”
Even before telescopes were invented, it wasn’t hard to observe comets, meteors and meteor showers. The 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry contains a depiction of Halley’s comet, which appeared in 1066. But people couldn’t see meteors for what they really were. Medieval Christians referred to the annual Perseid shower as “the tears of St. Lawrence,” believing that the burning tears of the martyred saint lit up the sky on his feast day, August 10.
Things began to change in the 19th century, as astronomers noticed that some meteor showers recurred on a fixed cycle. In November 1799, the Leonid shower was recorded by Andrew Ellicott, an American surveyor on a mission to establish the boundary between the U.S. and the Spanish territory of Florida. Ellicott was on board a ship in the Florida Keys when he observed the Leonids, writing in his journal that “the whole heavens appeared as if illuminated with skyrockets, flying in an infinity of directions, and I was in constant expectation of some of them falling on the vessel.” When a similar spectacle lit up the skies in the eastern U.S. in 1833, astronomers realized that it was a recurrence of the same phenomenon and that the meteor storm must be linked to the orbit of a particular comet.
The origin of the Quadrantids was harder to locate. Astronomers kept looking for its parent comet until 2003, when NASA scientist Peter Jenniskens realized that they were on the wrong track: The shower is actually caused by a giant asteroid, designated 2003 EH1, which broke off from a comet 500 years ago. It is somehow fitting that a mystery of the New Year’s night sky yielded to the power of an open mind.
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